Friday, October 26, 2012

The Rajah of the Darjeeling Tea – Makaibari

We flew to the Bagdogra airport and quailed beneath the tyranny of a long drive into the Himalayas. The car kept climbing the gravity defying bends as we kept moving towards the Makaibari village in Kurseong district near Darjeeling. Uneasiness flew down my spine due to the chilly mountainous breeze and the long drive made me wonder if the place was worth the effort. When we reached Makaibari, it was quite dark. While getting out of the car, as I looked skywards, to my astonishment I found the heaven was brilliant with stars. Accustomed to live in a noisy city, we found the silence at Makaibari, a bit unnatural. Knowing that the tea estate is also home to Leopards, we wanted to quietly sneak into our room. We walked into one of the houses in the village and into the heart of one ever smiling Mr. Gurang. The villagers at Makaibari offer home stay at a very nominal rate. The visitors not only can live and share meals with their hosts but also can join workers in plucking tea leaves, tour the factory and learn the "biodynamic" way of farming. At the end of a hard day, we relaxed with a scrumptious home-cooked meal made with locally grown organic produce, which was served by Gurangji’s family as they watched us devour the food gluttonously. Post dinner, we wanted to sit outside Gurangji’s house in the open but Hero’s (Gurangji’s dog) continuous barking made us apprehensive. Gurangji smilingly told us that he might have seen a Leopard which made our change our minds.  

Makaibari Homestays are better than the hotels in Darjeeling. At Gurangji's                                place in Makaibari

We were up early next morning as the sun peeped through the far away mountains and the sky erupted in an explosion of crimson light. It was truly a wonderful sight which made the travelling difficulties we faced the previous day fade into insignificance.

Meeting the Rajah 

    Mr. Swaraj Banerjee also known as Rajah - the owner of Makaibari tea gardens

A little later, we were patiently waiting outside the office of Mr. Swaraj Banerjee, also known as Rajah Banerjee, the fourth generational owner of the Makaibari tea gardens. Photographer Suzane Lee once described Rajah as more British than the British themselves and we too, felt the same. He however, is a legend in this part of the world and has done more for Darjeeling tea than anyone else in the region. His tea estate today is the only one in the world which is entirely biodynamic. “What champagne is to wine, Darjeeling is to tea” quipped Rajah, in one of our conversations just before the tea tasting session. 

                                Tea Tasting session with Mr. Banerjee himself

To me, Tea was just Tea prior to this visit. A Tea tasting session with Rajah changed my views. To Rajah the proud owner, growing tea is a spiritual experience and the Makaibari spirit is a way of life. It was an amazing experience just lending him ears while he, with an unpretentious contentment described different types of tea that grow in his estate while we kept tasting them. Expecting the tea to taste just as usual as it did, different brews like the First Flush, the second flush, the Darjoolong and the Silver Tips imperial tasted wonderfully different from each other. Each of us present in his office were pleasantly surprised when Mr. Banerjee proudly spoke about his most expensive brew in Darjeeling known as “Muscatel” which fetched him Rs. 50,000/- per kg in one of the auctions in Beijing. The Silver Tips holds the record of being the costliest tea in the world. 

Tea Shopping

Post lunch, we spent the afternoon roaming around. For a few moments, we stood there silently, staring at the vast stillness of the valley. Finally it was time to leave, but we couldn’t have left Makaibari without sampling some of the best varieties of tea it had to offer. We bought lot of flavors of tea that came up in discussion with Rajah, but I was very impressed by one such flavor - Paan flavored tea.  The shopping mania continued for some more time till we finally decided to leave. There are many places in India where commercialization has taken its toll, but there are still some more which are offbeat and less trodden and Makaibari is one of them. We drove to the Kurseong railway station and took the train to Darjeeling. This railway station is a UNESCO heritage site built in 1880 and the buildings reminded me of our country’s colonial past. The train still has a steam engine and it puffs and pants its way through the lanes of Kurseong. While in the train, I smirked at myself for the thoughts I had on reaching Makaibari and was glad to have a different point of view now. Soon the pleasant experience we had at Makaibari faded into oblivion for a short while as we started thinking about the challenges that lie ahead on our maiden high altitude trek to ever  to Sandakphu.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Trek to Sandakphu is a trek to heaven

While we were in Darjeeling preparing for a trek to Sandakphu, it was raining continuously. Rajan, our guide said November is usually cold but not wet. Perhaps, I thought, this was how nature chose to respond to human attempts to dominate her as if serving a reminder of her existence. Suddenly a credible thought crossed my mind. If it is raining in Darjeeling, it may be snowing in Sandakphu. I prayed to the almighty to not to throw any surprises on my first ever trek in high altitude. Pray but be prepared was our mantra and hence armed with all means to meet such surprises, 53 of us stretched our ambitions to a height of about 3636m, decided to take uncertainties head-on and were ready to scale the only corner in North- East India which provides a 180 degree view of four of the five most formidable peaks in the world namely Mt Everest, Kanchen Dzonga, Makalu and Lhotse peaks.

        From Dhotrey - Land Rovers were once Clint Eastwood favorites. They are    obsolete by more than half a decade and now seen only in this part of the world.

We started off from an incredibly picturesque village called Dhotrey. Bright white Buddhist monasteries greeted us providing an insight into the mountainous civilization. We kept walking as desultory and dangling conversation prevailed amidst dazzling surroundings. We also passed through the Singalila National Park where the elusive Red Panda lives freely in serenity. The walk slowly turned into an arduous climb. Finally we reached Neelu Di’s Shikhar lodge at Tumling situated at a height of about 3070m after crossing into Nepal and had a cup of hot soup to keep ourselves warm. Fresh breeze blew past us and huge white clouds sailed in the clearest of skies. It was pitch dark by 5 PM. By about 7.30 PM, there was a huge gathering of fellow diners near the hearth while the bright flames kept dancing into it. Post dinner, weariness had begun to weigh on the eyelids and soon we abandoned ourselves to sleep. 

                                                     Sunrise at Tumling

After a lip smacking breakfast, we were off to our next camp at Kali Pokhri (Kali, in Nepalese dialect means Black and Pokhri means Pond). The road is full of ups and downs and taxing on the knees but is beautiful, fully laden with Bamboo and Rhododendron forests. Clear skies accompanied us most of the time but we knew that change is constant in mystical Himalayas. In no time, we were once again walking into mist. The heart kept hammering into the chest as we kept climbing up. After an assiduous walk, we reached Kali Pokhri. By about 3.30 PM, it was really cold and pitch dark. Once again we had an early dinner and were off to bed.

                                                    Approaching Kali Pokhri

Next day amidst clear skies we started walking skywards - towards Sandakphu. The dazzling blue sky, the lovely mountains, the chirping of birds, the cold breeze blowing with an immense roar, everything seemed eternally lovely. The road towards Sandakphu is resplendent with ethereal beauty of Magnolias, Rhododendrons, Primulas and other sub-alpine flowers. It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to describe the walk to the climax. You got to be at the place to experience the feeling which no words can describe. If you belong to the concrete jungle and your heart is a chaotic battlefield every day, this is an ideal place to be. We hoped the weather stayed as it is and not deteriorate. But as they say - Man proposes and God disposes. The fog returned. The weather which looked like a beautiful lady now appeared an evil witch eager to rob us from the post card perfect views around. When we reached Sandakphu, the wind was blowing with an unrestrained rage and thick fog had blocked the view of the mountain ranges. Soon we made ourselves comfortable in the cozy room inside Sherpa Chalet lodge. I had a headache and was gasping for breath due to thin air. In spite of the mountain sickness most of us had a question in our hearts. Would the weather Gods allow us a glimpse of the mountain ranges tomorrow? 
                                                The summit - Sandakphu

All night the winds kept howling. I got up at 5 AM, took a stroll outside to catch the rising sun but it hid itself behind thick wall of fog. We waited like a fisherman does after throwing his bait but to no avail. The formidable obstacles we cleared to reach the top now started appearing futile. There was a ray of hope though which made us stare at the huge white wall of mist in front of us which wasn’t ready to budge. At about 8 AM, it was time for the descent and to move to our next camp at Gurdum. 

                       The Kanchen Dzonga peaks : The moment of truth!!!!

After only a few steps down, fate sprung a pleasant surprise. Strong winds started pushing the fog away as if revealing a mystery. A huge white mountain appeared miraculously from nowhere putting a blossomed smile on our faces. This was it! We awaited the revelation of an amazing truth and only a few seconds later we glanced admiringly at the gigantic Kanchan Dzonga. I was speechless, unable to distinguish dream from reality. I kept staring at the angel white ranges with reverence. Further contemplation of the scene made the mountain appear like the beautiful woman, who looks depressing and unattainable.

A few moments later, the fog was back turning our hearts into ice. We only got a chance to see the imposing Kanchan Dzonga and nothing else and hence I thought the visit wasn’t completely doomed. I looked up to thank the almighty and got a feeling of déjà-vu. Some faded images came back to life and I recalled standing at about 5487m at Khardung La in Ladakh wondering how much higher the sky would be. I wonder about it every time standing at great heights. Later with utmost agony, we started our trek downwards as we had to reach Gurdum. The limbs were ready but the soul was reluctant to leave such a wonderful place. The beautiful memories of Sandakphu had squeezed itself into the heart. This place definitely is a distinct path to heaven. My mind immediately made a decision to come back for a complete view of the mountain ranges and to experience the solitude of Sandakphu once again.

How to Reach

By Flight
Bagdogra Airport is about 90 km from Darjeeling. All major flights fly to Bagdogra. A return flight may cost you somewhere between INR 10000-20000. From Darjeeling you can trek to Sandakphu via Maneybhanjan. Group treks or private treks are available. You can also opt for a jeep safari from Maneybhanjan which may cost you somewhere between INR 5000-10000.
By Train
New Jalpaiguri (NJP) railway station is about 69 km from Darjeeling. Buses and taxis are available. You can also take a toy train ride from NJP to Darjeeling which takes approximately 9 hrs. The fare is INR 30/- for second class and INR 350/- for first class.
Important information:
Singalila National Park remains closed for tourists from 16th June to 15th September. Snowfall usually starts in the last week of December and continues intermittently till February.
Best times to visit Sandakhphu:
21st March to 30th April: If you get clear sky during this time, you are lucky. Stormy winds with rain are common.
25th December to 31st January: Expect snowfall.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rangeelo Rajasthan - Udaipur

A two-night stay in Jodhpur was quite an experience. Our next destination was Udaipur. I thought Udaipur was a quiet town but I was wrong. Udaipur town is huge and well populated. Whichever place we have been to in Rajasthan, traffic followed us. And Udaipur is no better when it comes to traffic. We spent a couple of desperate moments looking for our hotel Thamla Haveli. Finally, I called up the hotel and they sent a boy to look for us. We met at a specific place and were later ushered into the hotel. Since we had opted for a lake facing room, we were asked to go to the top (second) floor which had an amazing view of the beautiful lake Pichola. After checking-in, I stayed put at the window to have a glimpse outside. There were many people boating in the lake. In Udaipur, since many buildings are located close to each other, I could see nearby hotels and its residents resting and eating. Some were sun-bathing with their clothes on. 

I heard some bird-calls in the nearby tree. Suddenly a particular bird caught my interest and attention. I immediately got hold of my point-and-shoot camera and was ready to take a picture of the bird. This was it… my favorite bird.. which was on my photograph wish list since a long time. It was a beautiful and magnificent bird - Indian Grey Hornbill which was feeding on the figs. Later I realized that there were a couple of Hornbills who visited the tree daily for eating those figs.

                                                                The Indian Grey Hornbill  

On our way from Jodhpur, we visited the Shrinathji-Nathdwara temple and it was another superb experience. At the temple, there are many jhankis throughout the day. The temple doors opens and closes many times a day to give a jhanki of Lord Krishna. I was told by a friend that the temple closes by afternoon. While we were still many kilometres away from Shrinathji, I requested the cabbie to drive faster so that we reach there before the temple closes. This trucker-turned-cabbie drove rashly and gave us a few jittery moments. But we had to reach on time and therefore asked him to go on. Finally, we reached there by 11.45 AM and luckily the last jhanki of the morning went on till about 12.30 PM and we had a satisfying darshan. The delicious laddus available as prasad were something I was looking forward to and wasn’t disappointed. We bought a lot of laddus.

While in Kerala in 2010, we had tweaked our itinerary to visit the famous Guruvayur temple. The black idol of Lord Krishna in Shrinathji as well as in Guruvayur simply took the heart away. On both occasions I kept gazing at the idols and the vision suddenly turned blurry. I realized later that there was a tear sitting somewhere deep down inside my heart which oozed itself out through the eyes. These were no doubt there were khushi ke aansoo. Cameras are not allowed inside the temple which left us bereft of the images of the beautiful Lord. It was a pleasing experience nevertheless.

The following day we visited the famous Jagdish temple. It was close-by from where we were as we could see it from the hotel itself, so we decided to walk down. The temple has a huge stone architecture adorned by stoned elephants and many other dancing deities as if honoring the Lord. The idol of Lord Vishnu is massive and made of black stone and is accompanied by a brass idol of Garuda.

                                The famous Jagdish temple that belongs to the Lord of the Universe

                                                           Jagdish temple - Side ways 

Next on the to-do list was a visit to the City Palace, the prime attraction of Udaipur. We had a glimpse of the beautifully lit palace from our hotel room the previous night. The palace is another superbly built and maintained palace in Rajasthan. It had everything that you expect to see in a palace where the kings lived once.. the royal thrones, shringar rooms of the queens, the place where they rested, beautiful architecture and carvings etc. A unique statue of Maha Rana Sanga caught my attention. Rana Sanga was the grand-father of the great king Maharana Pratap. He fought many battles and had as many cuts on his body. He was a fierce fighter and had lost an eye, a hand and a leg while fighting. Maharana Pratap was deeply inspired from Rana Sanga as he renewed his fight with the Moghul emperor - Akbar. Post City Palace, it was time for lunch and nothing tastes more delicious than dal-baati churma and rabdi laden ghewar.  

                                                           The statue of Maha Rana Sanga

                                                         The City Palace in early morning light

                                                      The City Palace in fading evening light  

Later we decided to walk down to the famous Vintage and Classic car collection display (suggested by my dear friend Sumit). Amazingly these eons’ old never-before-seen cars are in working condition. I was awed looking at magnificent Rolls-Royce, 1939 Cadillac open convertibles, rare Mercedes models, 1936 Vauxhall and 1937 Opel models. Later I got a rare chance to sit inside one of those vintage cars with my dearest wifey. This was one of the most unforgettable experience travelling in Rajasthan.

Our next stop was Ranakpur. We did not have a reservation at Ranakpur since there aren't good hotels around the famous Ranakpur Jain temple. We therefore decided to extend our stay in Udaipur and paid a short visit to the place. Ranakpur also has a wild life sanctuary and the temple itself is surrounded by forests. The century’s old Ranakpur jain temple is dedicated to Lord Adinath or Rishabhdev and is one of the five most important pilgrimages of the Jains. The walls are made of marbles which reflect light and hance the entire structure shines brightly in sunshine. The magnificent dome of the temple is supported on more than a thousand pillars and has an infinite number of the idols of the 24 Jain Tirthankars. This beautiful temple was nominated amongst the top 77 wonders in the world but it couldn’t quite make it to the top 7.

Since it was late noon, we had an authentic lunch at the Jain bhojanshala in the temple. Apart from being the best option, it is also advisable to opt for a lunch at a jain bhojanshala because the food normally is prepared is sattvik and readily available since there are many such dharamshalas spread across Rajasthan.

                                                             The Ranakpur Jain temple entrance
                                                                The beautiful carvings
                While taking this picture I waited for a long time for a person to move outta here. After I clicked this picture, the place was immediately infiltrated by someone else.
                                                     Infinite carvings on one of the pillars inside the temple
                                                           Trying for a symmetrical picture
                                                               A few of those 1000 pillars
                                                                     Amazingly beautiful ceiling
The following day was a rest day and in spite of being tempted to go to the Karni mata rope temple, we decided to spend the day at the hotel.